In February 2018, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, launched an investigation into the financial relationship between the NRA and the government of Russian president Vladimir Putin. “I am specifically troubled by the possibility that Russian-backed shell companies or intermediaries may have circumvented laws designed to prohibit foreign meddling in our elections,” Wyden wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and NRA treasurer Wilson Phillips, Jr. “The national security as well as legal implications…make it imperative that Congress conduct a thorough investigation.”
Wyden hasn’t found a smoking gun (evidence the NRA used Russian money to elect 2016 GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump), but his recently released report from the minority staff of the Senate Finance Committee contains a treasure trove of new information about the financial relationship between the NRA and Russia. The report lays bare a staggering amount of corruption:
The minority staff investigation confirms that the NRA, its officers, board members, and donors engaged in a years-long effort to facilitate the U.S.-based activities of [Russian agent] Maria Butina and [Russian Central Bank deputy governor] Alexander Torshin. The U.S. Justice Department determined the activity of those Russian nationals — one now convicted of a felony charge of conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent and the other designated by the U.S. Treasury Department for the Russian Federation’s global malign activity, including attempting to subvert Western democracies and malicious cyber activities — amounted to an illegal conspiracy to gain access to American organizations through the NRA. The scope of the NRA’s support for these Russian activities raises concerns about whether the activity in which the NRA, its officers and board members engaged were in furtherance of the organization’s [tax-]exempt purpose.
Here are some topline observations from Senator Wyden’s report:
1. The NRA-Russia relationship is as much about business as politics.
Then-Russian central bank deputy governor Alexander Torshin and his “assistant” (Russian spy) Maria Butina cultivated NRA leaders as much by exploiting their personal greed as appealing to their political affinities (gun nuttery, right-wing Christianity, etc.). Some of the illicit business that transpired has already been chronicled, like a strange deal for Russian jet fuel that NRA board member David Keene and his wife tried to broker with Butina and disgraced GOP operative Paul Erickson. Or the “Putin’s Russia” TV show that Butina pitched to the Kremlin on behalf of Outdoor Channel CEO and NRA donor Jim Liberatore — portraying the ruthless dictator as a conservationist.
The Wyden report adds new information about business dealings that gun manufacturer and former NRA first vice president Pete Brownell had with the Russians. As early as January 2015, Brownell started talking to Butina about business opportunities for his firearms retailer (Brownells) in Russia.
When then-NRA president Allan Cors decided to withdraw from an NRA delegation trip to Moscow in December 2015 at the last minute, Butina courted Brownell as a replacement with the promise of “profitable” business meetings. “As you know, Turkey W A S [sic] the biggest exporter of weapons to Russia,” Butina told Brownell. “Now would be an excellent time for an American genius to steal this market.” Brownell came to Moscow three days before the rest of the NRA delegation and met with top executives in Russia’s defense sector. His goal was to secure import and export opportunities for Brownells and its subsidiaries.
When he got back to the states, Brownell followed up with the contacts he made in Moscow, but little actual business seems to have resulted.
2. NRA leaders had few qualms about working with sanctioned individuals and companies in Russia.
During the December 2015 delegation trip to Moscow, NRA leaders met with a significant number of companies sanctioned by the United States for their role in Russia’s illegal 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. This list includes Kalashnikov Concern, Molot-Oruzhie, Tula Cartridge Works, TsNIITochMash (the Central Research Institute for Precision Machine Building), and ORSIS. The NRA delegation also met with sanctioned deputy defense minister Dmitry Rogozin, who has closes ties to ORSIS.
The Wyden report takes us behind the scenes to show then-NRA first vice president Pete Brownell hashing out the risks associated with meeting sanctioned Russians. After reaching out to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) “about meeting with individuals who OFAC listed as Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDNs),” Brownell was advised to avoid meeting with any SDN who could “derive a benefit from the interaction.” Nonetheless, the compliance director at Brownells “determined that [Pete] was permitted to meet with sanctioned Russian nationals because he planned to do so as part of a cultural exchange in his official capacity as a member of the NRA’s delegation.” [Once the trip became controversial, NRA officials denied it was authorized or official.]
Although Brownell fretted about “publicity extras” during the Moscow trip, a substantial portion of it was documented for posterity. For example, defense minister Rogozin tweeted a photo of NRA leaders Brownell and fascist Wisconsin sheriff David A. Clarke, Jr. meeting with him on December 12, 2015 at the HQ of the Russian Practical Shooting Federation.
The Wyden report ominously concludes, “Participants’ willingness to meet with sanctioned individuals, despite recognition of their SDN status and the potential political sensitivity of such meetings, enabled [Russian agent Maria] Butina and [deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank Alexander] Torshin to further entrench themselves in the NRA.”
3. An offer to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin cemented the NRA delegation’s December 2015 trip to Moscow.
As noted above, Russian agent Maria Butina approached then-NRA first vice president Pete Brownell to replace then-NRA president Allan Cors when Cors withdrew from the NRA delegation trip to Moscow for health reasons. Butina initially plied Brownell with business opportunities, telling him his participation in the trip “would DEFINITELY be profitable.”
Brownell was interested but non-committal. On November 23, 2015, Butina’s erstwhile lover, Paul Erickson, dangled a bigger prize in front of Brownell. “I received word early this morning that the NRA delegation ‘may be privileged to enjoy an audience with Russia’s leader,’” he told Brownell. “No guarantees, but given the source of the news it is now VERY likely that up to seven (7) members of the NRA delegation will be granted a private meeting with the ‘hero of Syria’ in Moscow…but only if the delegation is led by the NRA President (or future President).”
This sparked Brownell, who was next in line for the NRA presidency. “This would be a very interesting meeting,” he replied to Erickson. “I already felt like a small fish in a very big shark filled ocean. [The Brownells] team is working through the logistics today.” The following day, Brownell emailed Butina to formally accept her offer to participate in the NRA delegation trip to Moscow.
Butina and Erickson also suggested the possibility of a private meeting with Putin to NRA board member/past president David Keene. Butina told Keene that the NRA delegation’s planned meeting with journalist Pavel Gusev, an “unofficial media adviser” for Putin, could be useful to him. Gusev’s “good word–along with [Alexander] Torshin’s–can secure your personal interview with President Putin for the Washington Times,” she emailed. Keene worked as an opinion editor at the Washington Times at the time (2013 to 2017).
Ultimately, the NRA delegation meeting with Putin did not happen (though the delegation met with a range of high-ranking officials immediately under the Russian president). Whether or not the meeting was ever a real possibility (or just bait from Butina and Torshin) is unclear.
4. Past NRA president Pete Brownell spilled the beans on his former colleagues.
On May 7, 2018 gun manufacturer Pete Brownell resigned his position as NRA president — the same day that David Corn of Mother Jones published a blockbuster article showing how Russian defense manufacturer ORSIS promoted Brownell’s role in the NRA delegation trip to Moscow to sell the T-5000 sniper rifle (which is pointed at NATO troops in the field).
By that time, Brownell was probably cooperating with Senator Wyden’s investigation into the NRA and Russia, which began in February 2018. And man did he... A significant percentage of the new documents in the Wyden report came from the former NRA president.
Brownell wasn’t always honest with Wyden (e.g., he told staffers on the Senate Finance Committee there was never any plan for the NRA delegation to meet with Vladimir Putin), but he clearly consulted with his attorneys and decided his best option was to come clean and try to get ahead of a negative, developing story. In doing so, Brownell burned his bridges with the NRA and exposed many of his former colleagues to potential criminal liability. That list includes Keene and his wife Donna, Cors, then-special assistant to Cors Nick Perrine, senior NRA staffer Millie Hallow, and others.
5. No smoking gun (yet), but plenty of largesse between the NRA and Russia.
The Wyden report contains no evidence of Russian attempts to fund American political candidates through the NRA, but it does uncover plenty of dubious financial transactions and gifts.
One example is the NRA paying for Safari Club International (SCI) memberships and convention registration fees for Alexander Torshin and Maria Butina in February 2016. Top NRA donor and “Ring of Freedom” head Joe Gregory flew the Russian pair from Moscow to the SCI convention in Las Vegas on his personal aircraft and paid for their hotel.
Wyden also reveals that Butina explicitly told NRA staff she needed the organization’s support in order to secure a visa to enter the United States. NRA staff obliged by formally inviting her to annual meetings and other important events. Butina then “exploit[ed] her relationship with NRA officials to secure travel visas for additional Russian individuals to participate in unofficial domestic diplomatic meetings between American and Russian politicians and business interests [in the United States].”
6. What a scene when the Russians met Donald Trump, Jr. at the NRA convention in Louisville!
We know from previous reporting that Torshin and Butina met Donald Trump, Jr. at the 2016 NRA annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. The Wyden report provides new detail about that meeting — which was marked by drama and tension.
During the convention on the evening of May 21, 2016, then-NRA board member David Keene was scheduled to dine with Torshin, Butina and a third Russian — Foundation for the Development of Promising Defense Technologies (Forpost) chairman Dmitry Osipkin — at Eddie Merlot’s Steakhouse in Louisville. The reservations were made by Nick Perrine, the special assistant to the NRA president, and Keene was reminded on multiple occasions.
Keene, however, changed the plans and took his Russian entourage to another restaurant, Brendon’s Catch 23, at which an NRA fundraiser was taking place. Pete Brownell (first vice president), Oliver North (board member), Wayne Sheets (fundraising consultant) and Woody Phillips (CFO and treasurer) were hosts at the fundraising dinner, where approximately 30 high-dollar donors had gathered. The special guest at the event was Donald Trump, Jr., the son of 2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
When a confused Catch 23 staff led Keene and the Russians into a special room reserved for the NRA fundraiser, chaos broke out. Some of those present were shocked to see representatives of the Putin government at the fundraiser. Keene was asked to leave with his group (to go to Eddie Merlot’s Steakhouse where they belonged). He responded by becoming “incensed” and exhibited a “prolonged sense of extreme anger.” Keene told Brownell he would be resigning from the NRA board and turning in his membership, then stormed out of Brendon’s Catch 23 without the Russians!
Senior NRA staffer Millie Hallow stepped in to assist the now unattended Russians. She asked Brownell to introduce Torshin and Butina to Trump, Jr. He did so, and the group even took some photos together.
The following morning, Keene cooled down and changed his mind about leaving the NRA. He thanked Brownell for helping him “[save] face with the Russians” and told him Torshin “went away feeling good about his visit” [to the 2016 NRA annual meeting.]
7. Senator Wyden did a terrific job.
Before Senator Wyden’s report, Congress had produced very little of value on the subject of the NRA-Russia relationship. Most of what we know about it has come from investigative reporting and court documents. So for Wyden to release so many new documents of value (texts, emails, phone calls, itineraries, etc.) is very significant.
And it wasn’t just disgruntled former NRA president Pete Brownell supplying the Senate Finance Committee minority staff with documents. Wyden also (voluntarily) got valuable information from staff at NRA HQ, the Department of Treasury, and other places.
Finally, it appears Wyden is not done investigating the NRA and Russia. His report concludes:
A broader review of NRA’s activities in recent years is necessary to determine whether NRA has engaged in a persistent pattern of impermissible conduct. Former NRA officials have made additional allegations of private inurement and misuse of tax-exempt resources beyond the 2015 Russia trip. Ranking member Wyden has initiated an inquiry into these allegations and the minority staff will continue to review the findings from that investigation.